Not breathing but panting; or reading to overcome the Overwhelm
During a bout with insomnia that went the full 12 rounds a few years ago, I began to read about the science and havoc of stress in the hope of managing mine. I discovered the neuroendocrinology behind stress-triggered cortisol surges that sicken and age us, contributing to depression, anxiety, autoimmune disorders, and even cancer, and I learned why our dear shriveling hippocampi, the bosses of memory and learning in our brains, need exercise to outrun the amygdala, where fear and negativity lurk. Brain research is hopeful: “Small positive actions every day will add up to large changes over time, as you gradually build new neural structures” (Hanson, Buddha’s Brain 19). Although we academics are as overwhelmed as other professions, it seems our deadlines coincide with preexisting conditions of stress, namely December holidays, and, for those of us with children, grading and conventions often dovetail nicely with Spring school concerts, sports tournaments, and graduations. Because the resources I discuss here helped slow my cortisol careen, I gratefully pass them along.
After hearing an interview with Brigid Schulte on NPR’s Fresh Air, I devoured Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play when No One Has the Time, which brings together memoir and social science, brain research and policy recommendation, self-help and humor in one smart, timely, and feminist volume. The author, a fellow at New America, a public policy think tank, and award-winning Washington Post writer, delivers a raw report on what’s frazzling us (especially women and mothers) and what we must do individually, collectively, and as a nation to reduce stress, regain a work/life balance (if we ever had one), and resume play. The five-part argument moves through what we could call the stress-causing and -management “industries,” focusing on the problems of busyness in three facets of our chaotic lives: work, love, and play. Using interviews with such experts as international time management researchers, Danish families, founders of trapeze gyms, and yogis, among her innumerable data sources, Schulte was ahead of the curve in exploring the concept of hygge, n.[mass noun] a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture), one of 2016’s finalists for the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. Overwhelmed closes, thankfully, with a “bright spot,” Schulte’s review of de-stressing practices and the people and workplaces that foster them. Schulte urges readers to dump “busy” as a badge of honor and find time to try something new, take a vacation, change workplace culture, set our own priorities and “live an authentic life.”
I followed Schulte’s bibliography breadcrumbs to a hygge-friendly library stocked with books, apps, and podcasts on pop neuroscience, mindfulness and lovingkindness [sic] meditation, happiness and comfort. I generally loathe self-help books, having once skimmed a particularly inane pamphlet dissuading readers from “sweat[ing] the small stuff.” But, with 8 weeks’ worth of sleep starvation and my own book deadline hurrying near, I surrendered to some intellectually compelling and immediately applicable items.
They included Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: a practical, and encouraging 28-day guide to the titular goal, packaged with a CD of conversationally toned guided meditations that remind listeners to “simply begin again” because all meditators get distracted. I also read Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence and (with Richard Mendus) Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom.
Most writers in the mindfulness business distinguish between reacting (what overwhelmed people do) and responding (calm people’s option). Karen Maezen Miller, Zen Momma and priest, told an audience at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, “I always regret my reactions.”
10% Happier is the plausible goal (and title) of T.V news anchor Dan Harris’ hilarious book subtitled “How I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my edge, and found self-help 10% that actually works—a true story.”
Jennifer Louden discloses Comfort Secrets for Busy Women: Finding Your Way when your Life is Overflowing and is the author of other books on life organizing and creativity.
With my growing library of resources, I go fewer rounds with Insomnia, and I remind my students that busier lives may not more meaningful. We sometimes use the calm.com app in class and “take a deep breath.”
Ann C. Christensen is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston and the author of Separation Scenes: Domestic Drama in Early Modern England, published by the University of Nebraska Press (2017.)
The photo Ann Christensen at the beginning of the piece is by Isela Aguirre and is used with permission.